As much a I love dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and otherwise bleak science fiction—that’s kind of my jam if you missed my giddy excitement for Mad Max: Fury Road—the darkness and weight can get overwhelming from time to time. So I certainly understand where director Brad Bird and writer Damon Lindelof are coming from with Tomorrowland, trying to provide a more hopeful vision of the future. Unfortunately, I wish they’d stayed where they were instead of developing this smarmy, too-proud-of-itself movie.
Tomorrowland is a trite, saccharin genre tale that, while pretty to look at, is more about leveraging Disney’s decades of good will and wonder into an adventure. It never comes close to succeeding on this promise, and leaves a sour, all-too-easy aftertaste in your mouth as you walk out of the theater. That’s not to say it is entirely without merit, the scenes of the titular land are absolutely stunning to look, and there are interesting individual threads and themes, though they simply never weave together into anything more.
A clunky framing device sets up a narrative that is all backstory—this is seriously two hours of “getting there,” only you never get anywhere. Casey Edison (Britt Robertson) is a brilliant, rebellious teen. You can tell she’s special because as a child she could name a bunch of constellations, but don’t worry if you missed that because the movie will tell you over and over and over just how special she is. When she mysteriously comes into possession of mysterious pin (mystery is the word of the day here), this kicks off a great adventure that brings her into contact with Frank Walker (George Clooney), a former boy genius turned curmudgeonly pessimist. Together the reluctant pair embark on a journey to the magical land of the title, where Casey just might be the key to saving the world.
Tomorrowland works best during the action scenes when Casey and Frank must rush to meet their goal. Hounded by squads of automated goons—and accompanied by a young girl robot, Athena (Raffey Cassidy), who Frank is awkwardly in love with—there is an outside force compelling them forward, giving them a timeline that Frank’s ticking doomsday clock never provides. Unfortunately, these moments are too few and far between, take too long to arrive, and are over so soon that they only provide brief respites.
The dynamic between Casey and Frank is very basic. He’s old and bitter, she’s young and hopeful; he just watches the world tear itself apart, she wants to fix the problems. Guess which side wins out in the end? Their path is obvious. Robertson does as much as she can with what she has to work with, even infusing her character with layers of doubt and ambiguity in a few scenes near the end. She’s compelling to watch and carries the bulk of the dramatic load. If nothing else, it’s refreshing to see a major studio vehicle with a female protagonist, and she shows sparks here that indicate a bright future, away from here. For his part, watching George Clooney, outside of one scene near the end, just feels like watching George Clooney barely even try.
Overall, this simplicity is symptomatic of whole movie. Tomorrowland, for as endlessly convoluted as the plot becomes, and the script constantly piles on the details, the narrative is very straightforward—they have to get to a place and save the day, done. Written by Lindelof, most known for his work on Lost, the script continually muddies the water with new information. The idea is that there’s a mystery to unravel and they’re finding clues, but instead of being mysterious and compelling the story is needlessly obtuse, keeping you at a distance exactly when it needs to bring you in close. Every time you get one more partial piece of information that adds nothing, but that the characters treat as a major exposé, you can’t help but roll your eyes.
Extended monologues full of empty, watered-down philosophical ramblings that flit around the point, again trying to be enigmatic and shadowy, only to hammer it home in the most blunt manner possible a second later, pepper the movie. Hugh Laurie, as the mayor of Tomorrowland, which isn’t quite what you expect it to be, is a highlight of the supporting cast, but even his dry, sardonic humor can’t save this.
Gorgeous to look at—Bird uses inventive match edits to wonderful effect early on, and the rendering of Walt Disney’s utopian futuristic vision is spectacular—Tomorrowland has no vision of its own. For a movie that talks endlessly about inspiration and imagination, it has very little of either, and talks about being full of wonder rather than actually working to create that sensation. Obviously aimed at a younger audience, it’s too tedious, the pace too uneven and jumbled, to hook even them, and has little to offer aside from eye candy and squandered potential.
The aim of Tomorrowland is admirable, we can all use a more optimistic outlook, but the execution comes across like an unfocused, ham-handed, self-congratulatory editorial. [Grade: C-]